There are many things I love about Harrisburg, but the one thing I currently appreciate is how you never know what might happen as you walk down the street.
Sometimes this takes on a negative meaning, as catcallers still exist (and still have not figured out that their actions are unacceptable). But sometimes the sentiment is positive.
Last week, I had the strangest experience that I attribute as positive.
There are many, many children playing out on the street every day I walk to and from work, at least while the weather is nice. Several of these children are from the same family. I will see them often: one of the little boys will bike in circles on the block, or one or two of the girls will stand in the doorway and peer out at me as I walk. Sometimes they say hello; sometimes they’ll even try to hold brief conversations with me.
My guess was that they were Syrian, or at least from a country in that vicinity, and last week that fact was confirmed. As I walked past, one of the little girls stood shyly on the steps and called out to me. She was curious about the pizza box I had in my hands (it was leftover from my lunch that day), and when her mother appeared at the door, lugging out an old TV, I spoke very briefly with her as well. “Do you need any help?” I asked.
“No,” she said, then paused, thinking about how to say something. Her daughter interrupted, “She is still learning English.”
“Oh, that’s okay,” I replied. “I’m always up for practicing it.”
It was at this moment that the mother stopped, gave me a look, and then nodded. “Okay,” she said, motioning for me to follow.
I hesitated. I wasn’t entirely sure what she meant. Was she saying that she did, in fact, want help moving things? Or had I just invited myself over?
It ended up being the latter. They welcomed me into their home, asked what I would like to drink, and sat me down on their couch. At least five children gathered around me, excited for a guest. The mother got me a glass of water, then excused herself (“She has to go shopping for food,” one of the children explained).
The children had an assortment of things to share with me, including a stack of family photos (“I’m in three of them!” Abraham exclaimed proudly), and the TikTok app from Fatima’s phone (they were dead set on showing me the ins and outs of the app, and I have now silently confirmed that I have no desire to ever use it).
As I stated earlier, I’m not great with children. In fact, I find kids extremely overwhelming. I often find myself wanting to get to know someone better and just completely freezing up — adults and kids alike — but instead of the 80% of the time this happens with adults, the percentage is a full 100% with kids.
This experience was not an exception. I didn’t know what to say — though I don’t think they much cared. I managed to fudge my way through conversation. “What’s your favorite thing to do?” was the main topic for a while. They told me several times that they liked my hair. Still, despite their overeager hosting, it was overwhelming. By the time I left, it was very much out of a necessity to breathe and not have kids crowded around me.
But I was still so happy the experience happened. It is a very stupid feeling, to want to talk to someone but to feel panic about that very thing. I really hope that they didn’t take offense at this, and that they didn’t think my discomfort had anything to do with them.
See, I very quickly picked up on how important this visit seemed to be to these kids. I mean, I had just introduced myself half an hour earlier, and one of the girls hugged me as I left their house. I do recognize that many cultures are simply more open and friendly than Western culture is, and so maybe a part of that interaction was just that I was not used to that kind of hospitality, but… I also understand that for many people, living in a foreign country (especially America) can be an incredibly lonely experience.
I can’t say that I know what this family has gone through, but I do know the desire to make friends. I can only imagine how magnified that desire must be when you’re in elementary school, having to start your life over, and your history is embedded in a politically controversial issue.
I haven’t spoken with any of the family since my visit. I do hope that I will get to interact with them again. I have no idea what I will say, or whether I will ever get invited back inside, but I am struck by the fact that, if only for a small amount of time, I was ushered into their world. I don’t by any means believe that I was singled out as special for being invited in — I’m sure it could’ve happened to anyone walking by. But I’m glad it was me.